For the past several months it has been almost impossible to pick up a magazine, turn on a TV, computer, or radio, without being exposed to the latest antics of America's one-time reigning pop princess, Britney Spears. There has been much speculation: is she on drugs, suffering from a mental illness, devastated by her divorce, and now in addition to whatever previous causes, reacting to the loss of the custody of her two children? The truth is, we, and by that I mean the people who are not close to her personally, can only speculate at this juncture. But whatever the reason, why such media interest, other than the obvious...it sells! The media's reporting on the speculation of her mental condition is certainly not a public service. If she had just grown up as Britney Jean Spears in Kentwood, LA, and displayed the same behaviors she is today without becoming a cute Mouseketeer, provocative adolescent, and then meteoric popstar, would anyone have cared? I doubt there would be much interest at all because as I and other doctors across the country can attest, we see varying degrees of self-destructive behavior in our patients' everyday, and thankfully for them, the media leaves them alone.
As a child and adult psychiatrist who specialize in treating bipolar youngsters, let me begin by saying I have never met Britney and am only familiar with what the media has chosen to portray about her. Never, would I presume to diagnose someone without evaluating them face to face. Yet even if only half of what is said in the media is true, I feel very sorry for her and her children. What will the impact of all of this be on them? Her actions have been impulsive, inexplicable, and incredibly self-destructive. What would cause someone to be so reckless and dysfunctional?
From my vantage point, I do have to consider if mental illness plays a role in this situation. Could it be bipolar disorder? Previously known as manic depressive illness, a person with bipolar disorder experiences episodes in which their mood shifts between mania and depression. Simultaneously, there are changes in his or her energy level and behavior which interfere with daily functioning. Ironically, when in the manic or elevated state a person can seem either overly happy or extra "up" or they can be very angry and easily annoyed. Manic people often think they're superior to others and don't have to follow the same rules as everyone else. They talk a lot and fast, are full of energy, don't need a lot of sleep, are highly distractible and are very interested in sexually focused behaviors such as being very flirtatious or highly promiscuous. Manic individuals often engage in risky behaviors that may feel good at the moment but can result in terrible consequences.
In recent months we've all seen countless headlines about Britney's escapades -- shaving her head, appearing in public wearing a short skirt but without underwear, smashing a car with an umbrella and many other examples of inexplicable actions.
Earlier I said that if Britney had never left Louisiana most of us would never have heard of her. But once she became a megastar her every action began to be scrutinized by the media whether it is normal or not, perhaps compounding an already existing medical condition. The more bizarre her behavior, the more headline-worthy the story becomes. If your mood is off, and you feel so powerful that you can do anything while possessing the financial and name cachet to support most of your ideas, then the options to stand out and be noticed increase exponentially.
Does Britney Spears really suffer from bipolar disorder? Is her primary problem substance abuse? Are both or neither of these problems contributing to her tumultuous behavior? Is there yet something else going on? I don't know the correct answer, as I have not had the privilege of getting to know her as a person; and as best I can tell, neither has anyone else who has been speculating on her condition. However one thing I sincerely believe, we are watching a young woman...a young mom...a young singer whom other young girls emulate, fall apart before our eyes, whether we want to or not. Rather than speculate why, let's just hope that Britney's angst is acknowledged for the pain it is creating, not just the revenue it produces. Not doing so could cost us the loss of another music icon before her time.